Saturday, January 31, 2015

198. The Chain Gang

SERIES: Mickey Mouse
FIRST APPEARANCE OF: Pluto (sort of)

Mickey and the gang are in jail working on a chain gang (for no known reason) with Pete as their guard. Mickey uses music to lift everyone's spirits, but somehow this turns into a prison riot and an escape attempt. Mickey makes it out, but is chased by bloodhounds until landing safely back in prison.

I'm going to be honest here: I'm not a big fan of this one. I think most of the best things about it are done just as well if not better in other shorts. However, this short is of historical significance as it's the impetus for the creation of an important character: Pluto.

Most Disney reference material will cite this as the first appearance of Pluto. He is generally considered to be one of the two dogs that chase Mickey. But I don't consider either of these dogs to actually be Pluto. Their design doesn't match Pluto at all, even in his earliest form, nor are they named. But it is clear that their appearance inspired the creation of Pluto as we would come to know him. Pluto would make his first official appearance as himself two shorts from this in "The Picnic", and then he was Minnie's dog. But immediately after that, he became Mickey's and quickly developed into the canine companion that we've come to love. Whether or not Pluto technically appears in "The Chain Gang", the influence of those dogs to the creation of Pluto makes this short of great importance. Pluto allowed for greater stories to be told with Mickey, and a further development of his character.

The rest of this short is still mildly amusing. If you pay attention, it actually has more in common with the growing formula for the new Silly Symphony series than Mickey Mouse. Most Silly Symphonies of this era spend time using characters to riff on well-known musical themes (as the animals do here), and ultimately end in a chase scene. It seems as if the Disney studios were testing out what elements worked best for Mickey and what ones worked best for their new series.

Not that it's out of character for Mickey at all. Indeed, much of Mickey's appeal for the five years or so is how he uses music to spread goodwill in bad situations. After all, that's one of the primary themes of "Steamboat Willie". It's used to great effect here. We never know why Mickey is in jail, but while he's there, he can bring joy. Notice that everyone in the gang is morose until we get to the end of the line and Mickey is singing and smiling. Even when Pete tells him to shut up, his frown is short-lived. You'll notice also that Mickey responds, "Yes, Ma'am" to Pete. At the time, this was becoming something of a catchphrase for Mickey. I don't know why, but I always find it funny.

I like that all the different characters get different moments of dancing or musicality during the cartoon. They have individual personalities. The highlight for me is that tough-guy dog (who I don't think appears in other shorts) and the way that he dances. He has this great little moment of just sort of dancing muscly, and then this shifts to a dainty sort of dance with his ball and chain, accompanied by frivolous music and tweeting birds. It's a cute juxtaposition, and one of the few times I genuinely laugh during this cartoon.

It's interesting to see what different eras found acceptable. There is a lot of gunplay and bullet humor in this cartoon during the jailbreak sequence. Considering Disney actually edited a segment out of one of their movies for home video because it involved gunplay, it's amazing to see what they did back then. They would probably not make cartoons where characters comically get shot in the butt today, at least not in the same way. But at the time, it was just another in a series of sight gags.

There are some clever gags involving Mickey's ball and chain. I like how he uses it to escape. His chain actually breaks, and then Mickey goes back for the ball and carries it with him! That's cute. I enjoy little moments like that.

"The Chain Gang" has some historical significance and so I felt wrong about not including it. And there are moments that I find fun. But I do also feel like there's something lacking in it. I don't find it as funny as other Mickey shorts of the period. The musical moments aren't as solid, and the story is weak. The prison break comes out of nowhere just to have a climax. These are things I forgive in the early Silly Symphonies, but somehow this cartoon feels like it's not quite serving Mickey as well as it could. It's certainly a fine way to use the character, but I don't know that the situation is fully justified. Mickey is an everyman; is this short designed to speak to Americans on chain gangs? I guess I prefer my Mickey a little more domestic or a little more fanciful. This scenario never completely worked for me. It's an interesting development to have prison guards who are all clones of Pete (the real Pete is the one with the peg leg); they would use this tactic in other shorts; for example, as an entire football team. "The Chain Gang" is a notable cartoon, though certainly not among my true favorites. As a matter of taste, I prefer "The Shindig", but this one has a bit more plot even if it feels plotless at times. It's a curious stepping-stone for Mickey and for where the company was going at the time.

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